Threat – Denethor POV – 1 of 3 In which Denethor deals with threats from the cat, the captain, Umbar, the Steward, his sisters, his heart and the Dark Lord. All in all, he prefers dealing with Orcs.
A lot happens in this chapter. All of Denethor’s cleverness over the summer is going to come back to haunt him, and family relations take a definite turn for the worse. Denethor looking into the palantír this early is a bit of fudging of the canon. This was a plot point I wrestled with for some time. Tolkien says this:
“Gandalf should have been reported as saying that he did not think that Denethor had presumed to use it, until his wisdom failed. He could not state it as a known fact, for when and why Denethor had dared to use the Stone was and remains a matter of conjecture. Gandalf might well think as he did on the matter, but it is probable, considering Denethor and what is said about him, that he began to use the Anor-stone many years before 3019, and earlier than Saruman ventured or thought it useful to use the Stone of Orthanc. Denethor succeeded to the Stewardship in 2984, being then fifty-four years old: a masterful man, both wise and learned beyond the measure of those days, and strong-willed, confident in his own powers, and dauntless. His ‘grimness’ was first observable to others after his wife Finduilas died in 2988, but it seems fairly plain that he had at once turned to the Stone as soon as he came to power, having long studied the matter of the palantiri.. During the end of the rule of his father, Ecthelion II, he must have greatly desired to consult the Stone, as anxiety in Gondor increased, while his own position was weakened by the fame of ‘Thorongil’… At least one of his motives must have been jealousy of Thorongil, and hostility to Gandalf, to whom, during the ascendency of Thorongil, his father paid much attention; Denethor desired to surpass the ‘usurpers’ in knowledge and information, and also if possible to keep an eye on them when they were elsewhere.”
I’ve played on the uncertainty over the exact date of when Denethor would first have ventured the Stone – it is near the end of Ecthelion’s rule, Denethor wants to keep tabs on the wizard, and he certainly would not pass up an opportunity to gain more knowledge or dare new things. I’ve read other portrayals of how Denethor comes to look in the Stone that stress the malicious intent, to spy on Gandalf & Thorongil, but I wanted to emphasize how the scholar and adventurer in Denethor would have been thrilled by the experience of the Stone as such. He starts out with a utilitarian purpose, but swiftly loses himself in the joy of perceiving Gondor in a new way.
As for the strain, I think there is strain which manifests itself in the dizziness and disorientation – it made him pass out the first time, after all. But he is also someone with a disciplined mind, and who would quickly become used to manipulating it *under normal circumstances*. Now, I can’t think that ordinary users of the palantíri prior to the Morgul Stone coming to Sauron were left aged and decrepit when they used them. That’s not the sense one gets from the essay. I imagine that using the stones leave the monitors tired and a little disoriented, and that they could do harm to those who are not legitimate users or who do not possess strong mental discipline (see footnote 13 in the essay). The extreme effects – wearing him out, premature aging, becoming mentally unbalanced – these are all symptoms of wrestling directly with Sauron’s will in the converse of the Stones.
So, at this point in time, Denethor has not encountered Sauron in the Stone. Sauron probably doesn’t know it is once more in use, so is not looking for anyone, not as he was during the Ring War. The encounter of Denethor and Sauron does happen sometime, of course, but I posit that Denethor had some time & occasion in which to get used to using the Stone, so that when he does finally come psyche to psyche with Sauron, he has the skill and knowledge (not to mention force of will and legitimacy of use) to resist. So, though Tolkien is favoring the idea that Denethor first used the Stone after Ecthelion’s death, I put it a few years earlier. The rest of the writings on the palantír will bear out.